“The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”
Sir Edward Gibbon
“The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire”
Writers have always been attracted to Rome; exerting a powerful attraction among those coming to seek inspiration among its ruins; Whether to view the dead city, mourn the fall of its great empire or to grieve over he decadence of its church.However, most writers found, much to their surprise, that they came to expend more sorrow over Rome’s life than they did over its death. They loved the ruins , but almost everything else tended to shock them; from greedy shop owners , snobby aristocrats, diseased children and healthy fleas, they likely lost their tempers, but rarely their point of view.
”My temper is not very susceptible of enthusiasm ….” wrote the English historian Edward Gibbon as he recalled his visit to Rome in 1764. ”But at a distance of twenty-five years I can neither forget nor express the strong emotions which agitated my mind as I first approached and entered the Eternal City”. After a sleepless night I trod, with a lofty step, the ruins of the Forum… and several days of intoxication were lost or enjoyed before I could descend to a cool and minute investigation.” Gibbon devoted his cool and minute attention, which was to result in his ”Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” , to the church of modern Rome as well as to the ruins of the ancient city; and he came to the conclusion that it was the church and the decadent religion of Christianity boring from within, rather than the barbarian attacking from without, that had caused the fall of Rome.
”As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear, without surprise or scandal, that the introduction, or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister; a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of the emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country. Yet party-spirit, however pernicious or absurd, is a principle of union as well as of dissension. The bishops, from eighteen hundred pulpits, inculcated the duty of passive obedience to a lawful and orthodox sovereign; their frequent assemblies, and perpetual correspondence, maintained the communion of distant churches: and the benevolent temper of the gospel was strengthened, though confined, by the spiritual alliance of the Catholics. The sacred indolence of the monks was devoutly embraced by a servile and effeminate age; but, if superstition had not afforded a decent retreat, the same vices would have tempted the unworthy Romans to desert, from baser motives, the standard of the republic. Religious precepts are easily obeyed, which indulge and sanctify the natural inclinations of their votaries; but the pure and genuine influence of Christianity may be traced in its beneficial, though imperfect, effects on the Barbarian proselytes of the North. If the decline of the Roman empire was hastened by the conversion of Constantine, his victorious religion broke the violence of the fall, and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.” ( Edward Gibbon )
A century after Gibbon’s visit another young and impressionable historian, Henry Adams, came to the city; in recollection of his noted predecessor, he spent hours sitting on the steps of the church of Ara Coeli thinking about history. Though Adame disagreed about Gibbon’s theories, he could find no better ones.
” Rome could not be fitted into an orderly middle-class, Bostonian, systematic scheme of evolution. No law of progress applied to it. Not even time sequences, that last refuge of helpless historians, had value for it. ” Rome did not evolve, the historian concluded; it just existed. Its history was a series of experiments that had just failed, much as England, the great empire of Adam’s time, was beginning to fail; and as America, the next great empire , would probably fail too.
But, like Gibbon, most historians have found meaning in Roman history, and when they haven’t seen a meaning, they have read one into it. They have usually linked the fate of the city with the will of heaven, or at least, as Gibbon did, with the representatives of heaven on earth. One of the first was the ancient Roman historian Livy, who pointed with pride that his city ruled the mightiest of empires next to that of heaven and implied that it was, naturally, heaven’s will that made this possible.
Heaven was called upon to witness just the opposite point of view by Saint Augustine, who lived in the early fifth century , the time when the city of Rome was overrun by the Visigoths. Augustine spent a year in Rome as a young man; its fall was inevitable he said, for Rome was the city of man: it was mortal and it would die. Only the city of God was eternal. Like most historical generalizations, this remains unproved. Later ages, disagreeing with Augustine, would call Rome the ”Eternal City” ; and its survial was due primarily to the effort of Augustine’s church.
A less stoical witness to Rome’s decay was Niccolo Machiavelli; a minor and ineffective diplomat representing an impotent principality at a time when Italy was at the mercy of the other nations of Europe. Like Dante, he was a Florentine, and he considered himself a descendant of the ancient Romans. He was horrified by the difference between ancient and modern Italy; and he longed to restore Rome to power, with a Roman dictator ruling the country, a Roman style army protecting it from the Gauls, and re-Romanized citizens, who would once again demonstrate the sturdy virtues that had made their ancestors rule the world.
Macchiavelli scorned the papacy , believing it to be the cause of Italy’s break-up into a group of feuding principalities; but he was practical enough to see it as the strongest force in the peninsula and longed to enlist it for more mundane purposes than those to which it was ostensibly dedicated. It was from the Church that he hoped to draw the man who would be Italy’s savior. His model was Ceasar Borgia, Pope Alexander VI’s bastard son, who had driven the noble Roman families out of their fortresses built among the city’s ruins, and who was beginning to carve out an empire for himself like that other Roman Ceasar, Julius. The modern Ceasar fell, however, before he was able to consolidate his power, leaving Macchiavelli disappointed but not without hope. He refused to surrender his fantasy and incorporated it into a guidebook for rules, ”The Prince”; the treatise was dedicated to a Florentine relative of Pope Leo X, whom Machiavelli hoped would pick up where Caesar Borgia left off. He didn’t. It was not until centuries after Macchiavelli’s death that another Ceasar, Mussolini, attempted to bring the historian’s fantasy to life. He learned to his sorrow what macchiavelli could never accept: the glory of Rome had vanished.
From Edward Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: ”After a diligent inquiry, I can discern four principal causes for the ruin of Rome, which continued to operate in a period of more than a thousand years. I. The injuries of time and nature. II. The hostile attacks of the barbarians and Christians. III. The use and abuse of materials. And IV. The domestic quarrels of the Romans.
“The forests and morasses of Germany were filled with a hardy race of barbarians, who despised life when it was separated from freedom; and though on the first attack they seemed to yield to the weight of the Roman power; they soon, by a signal act of despair, regained their independence and reminded Augustus of the vicissitude of fortune.”
“The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.”
“Hope, the best comfort of our imperfect condition, was not denied to the Roman slave; and if he had any opportunity of rendering himself either useful or agreeable, he might very naturally expect that the diligence and fidelity of a few years would be rewarded with the inestimable gift of freedom.”